Shirley is Priscilla Williams, daughter of Joyce Williams and, more importantly, granddaughter of Colonel Williams, the commander of a British regiment on the Afghan frontier of The Raj. Colonel Williams' son having died and left Joyce widowed and impoverished, the Colonel has invited the daughter-in-law and granddaughter (both strangers to him) to stay with his regiment. Priscilla bonds with the gruff sergeant of the regiment, Sgt. MacDuff (Victor McLaglen), and Joyce falls in love with Lt. Brandes, but conflicts arise as the two civiilan women try to adjust to life in a frontier fortress. Then war comes when Khoda Khan (Cesar Romero), a Muslim tribal leader, rises up in revolt against the British and attacks the fort.
John Ford, a man who directed Westerns and a hard drinker who was known to get in fistfights with his actors from time to time, wasn't the most natural choice to direct a Shirley Temple movie, and only entered into the project grudgingly. He then grew to respect his child star so much that over a decade later he cast Temple in her best grown-up part, in Fort Apache. The backdrop of tragedy that runs through this film, as well as the grandeur of a John Ford western, makes this arguably the best movie Temple ever made, as Temple herself said in her biography.
This film also elicited the single creepiest film review ever written, from the pen of Graham Greene. Greene, using some seriously incendiary and creepy language (seriously, read the review), attributed Temple's popularity and film career to pedophilia. The studio sued Greene and his journal into non-existence, forcing the author to hide in Mexico for a couple of years. People have been arguing about that review ever since. While a cynical mind could read some Squick into other Temple films, like the scene where she's Sitting Sexy on a Piano in Little Miss Marker, or especially the "Baby Burlesks" that began her career, that sort of subtext is not readily in evidence in Wee Willie Winkie.
- As You Know: Some dialogue between Priscilla and her mom establishing that they are going to live with Priscilla's grandfather in India.
- British Stuffiness: Col. Williams in spades, as he can't even begin to deal with little Priscilla. Priscilla starts to drill as a private with the regiment because she wants her grandfather to like her. (Naturally, he loosens up.)
- Butt-Monkey: A boy soldier is given quite disfavorable treatment in the regiment, being thrown into a tub of water after sounding his bugle under Sgt. MacDuff's bed at reveille, or having his new uniform confiscated and shrunken in order to equip Priscilla with it. Even his two little dogs are seized so that Priscilla can have them.
- A Child Shall Lead Them: Well, she isn't a queen or anything. But Shirley, just by her example, winds up getting Khoda Khan to sit down and talk with Col. Williams, leading to a peace agreement.
- Cut Phone Lines: Or cut telegraph wires. This leaves Col. Williams and his regiment isolated and unable to call for help against Khoda Khan.
- Dances and Balls: A regimental dance is interrupted by an Afghan attack.
- Drill Sergeant Nasty: Subverted. MacDuff's attempt to be this is thoroughly undercut when little Priscilla lines up for drill, complete with her own little uniform.
- Due to the Dead: Sgt. MacDuff is escorted to the grave by a full military funeral procession, with Col. Williams and the officers leading the parade, reversed arms, the Pipes and Drums marching behind the gun carriage, and a guard of honor of Indian troops lining the way on horseback. Meanwhile, back in barracks, Priscilla weeps for him while going through his possessions.
- Everything's Louder with Bagpipes: As the story takes place within a Highland regiment, we hear bagpipes throughout, starting with the opening credits. Only three tunes are played, however: "Wha Sae the 42nd", "All the Blue Bonnets Are Over the Border" and "Lord Lovat's Lament". Morning reveille is shown to be less orderly than it probably should have been, with the Pipe Major tuning his pipesnote When Sgt. MacDuff is dying, the Pipe Major is on standby and when the former expires, starts playing the lament; cue to the Pipes and Drums playing the same lament in the funeral procession.
- Establishing Character Moment: In the first scene with Col. Williams and Lt. Brandes, the former is yelling at the latter for riding a buffalo through camp, establishing the former as a strict disciplinarian and the latter as a free spirit.
- Gender Flip: In the Rudyard Kipling short story that the movie adapts, the child is a boy, Percival Williams.
- Man in a Kilt: Logically, this being a Highland regiment. (And as Priscilla "enlists", she ends up donning one too.) But no going commando - one soldier falls during a training scene; his kilt flips up and we see he is wearing shorts underneath.
- Mighty Whitey: Absolutely drips with this trope, which will probably cause unease in latter-day viewers. Col. Williams patiently explains to Shirley that the British are merely there to facilitate trade and make the natives "become civilized", and everything would be awesome if the Afghans would just be quiet and let the British boss them around. Later all the Afghan warriors laugh when Shirley tells them that Queen Victoria wants all her subjects to be happy and rich.
- The Mole: Mohammed-din, a servant in the fort, is actually The Mole, in league with the Afghan rebels. And he is Chinese for no other obvious reason than racism.
- Not Even Bothering with the Accent: Averted. Priscilla and her mom are specified to be American.
- Rewarded as a Traitor Deserves: After Mohammed-din brings Priscilla to the Afghan fortress, having completed his mission by helping to free Khoda Khan, the Afghans chuck him off the walls of the fortress to his death.
- Shut Up, Kirk!: After Col. Williams has Lt. "Coppy" Brandes put up on charges for deserting his post to go walking with Joyce, both Joyce and Priscilla rip into him for being a bully and picking on Coppy because he doesn't approve of Coppy dating Joyce. In return Col. Williams quite calmly states that military discipline on the front lines is a matter of life and death and that Joyce and Priscilla should leave if they can't understand that.
- Significant Background Event: A blinking light is seen in the background as Shirley is yelling at Khoda Khan for not being nice and making peace with the British. It's Col. Williams and his regiment, having arrived at the Afghan fortress.